Opening Remarks by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office & Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman for SMUN, Tuesday, 4 June 2024, at 9.00am

05 June 2024




A very good morning to all of you. It is my pleasure to speak to you today at the opening ceremony of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Political Science Society’s Singapore Model United Nations Conference. 


  It is wonderful to be back on campus. NUS holds fond memories for me. Before I entered Politics, I was here as an Assistant Professor in NUS’ Department of Social Work and Psychology in 1998. 


  I am heartened that all of you are interested in global affairs and will be discussing issues and problems facing our planet in the next few days.


The world is getting more dangerous


Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister, Lawrence Wong was sworn in last month. In his inauguration speech, PM Wong pointed out that while Singapore is in a strong position, the world around us is in a state of flux and we face a world of conflict and rivalry. As a small country, an open economy and a diverse nation, we are uniquely vulnerable to powerful crosscurrents of great power rivalry, global economic disruptions, and the erosion of consensus around multilateralism. All these make for a messier, riskier, and more violent world.


  First, we are seeing intensifying geopolitical contestation, especially between the US and China, which creates greater uncertainties about the future of the global order. 


  Second, the erosion of multilateralism and fragmentation of our integrated global economy pose several challenges. There is a reversal of the international consensus supporting globalisation.Countries are increasingly prioritising domestic and national security considerations. We see growing protectionism and multiplying tariffs and export restrictions to protect domestic industries. This is inimical to Singapore, as we have been beneficiaries of a rules-based integrated global economy.


Third, these trends of fragmentation are even more worrying given the scale of global challenges today. The effects of climate change are keenly felt, in major climate disasters worldwide and in the elevated temperatures that we are all experiencing in Singapore and Southeast Asia. The threat of future pandemics remains real and present. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the world needs to start preparing for the next pandemic now. Increasing scale and scope of cyber threats, which can be crippling for a highly digitised country like Singapore, will require transnational coordination for effective responses. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be a force for good but also poses many downside risks, and even potential existential risks. Global cooperation on AI safety and governance is needed.


Big power rivalry


The state of US-China relations will continue to set the tone for global affairs. Their bilateral relationship is characterised by deep strategic rivalry and a lack of strategic trust. The US sees China as the only peer competitor with both the intent and the ability to reshape the international order and supplant the US as the world’s dominant power. It has framed the rivalry as a matter of values – a fight between democracy and autocracy. More fundamentally, the US regards China as a threat to its national security.


China feels that the time has come to reclaim its rightful place in the world. It sees the US as a declining power bent on maintaining its own pre-eminence by trying to contain China’s rise at every turn, and China resents it deeply. 


  Neither the US nor China wants a conflict, and both sides have taken steps in the last year to stabilise ties. However, their fundamentally incompatible worldviews and respective domestic political pressures makes it difficult for this stability to last. Neither side can afford to be seen as weak.


  Both sides are now locked in intense and sharpening strategic competition across multiple domains – in the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological spheres. Singapore watches the trajectory of US-China relations closely. In the absence of trust, both sides will assume the worst of each other, which can lead to miscalculations and fuel escalations. If interactions between the US and China are fraught, they will lead to further bifurcation of technology and supply chains, or even worse, unintended consequences. The US and China, and the global economy, are too interdependent for bifurcation, or even selective decoupling, to be painless. This can lead to a more divided, less prosperous, and less peaceful world.


  Our hope is that US and China can create a conducive environment that allows for healthy competition and cooperation and a peaceful co-existence. As a small and open economy that is highly dependent on businesses and trade, we have benefitted from being a vital node in the global supply chains. Both the US and China are important partners for us. The US is our top trading partner in services, as well as our largest foreign investor, while China is our top trading partner in goods.


Singapore has extensive relations with both the US and China. Ultimately, we hope to maintain good relations with all countries, while safeguarding our national interest in building an open and inclusive Southeast Asia. We do not wish to choose sides. Singapore’s foreign policy is driven by our own principles and national interests. This means that we are not pro- or anti-anyone. We are only pro-Singapore.


Foreign policy principles and objectives


Our foreign policy must always be based on a realistic assessment of our core national interests and vulnerabilities and acting consistently in accordance with these principles. This is especially critical given the current external environment that I have painted.


Singapore’s foreign policy is based on several fundamental objectives. To protect our independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; To secure our access to essential supplies – energy, water, food – and to keep air and sea lines of communication open; and to expand economic opportunities and maintain our relevance to the world.


To achieve these aims and to ensure our best chance for survival, there are a few things that we must keep doing. First, we have consistently advocated for a rules-based order and full respect for international law, which allows all states, including small states, to have a seat at the table. Singapore contributes actively to the shaping of global norms and rules in areas such as international maritime law and cybersecurity.


We continue to play our part in developing the international law of the sea. In March 2023, our Ambassador Mrs Rena Lee presided over the successful conclusion of negotiations on a new international agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas, also known as the BBNJ agreement, which builds upon the framework laid down in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).


  We are also playing a role in shaping the rules governing cyberspace. Ambassador Burhan Gafoor, our Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, serves as the Chair of the UN Open-Ended Working Group that is developing rules and norms for responsible State behaviour in cyberspace.


  We are prepared to take a firm stance against violations of international law – a practical response, as reinforcing the respect for international law is the only way small states have a chance to live in peace without the threat of invasion by bigger neighbours. We opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and are the only Southeast Asian nation to have sanctions in place against Russia for the latter.


The rules-based global order has been criticised for its inability to address concerns over national security and supply chain resilience. However, it is the only system that we have despite its imperfections, and we must update it to ensure so that it is fit for our time.


Second, we work with likeminded partners, to build coalitions of the willing that address challenges of the global commons and strengthen multilateral institutions to promote peaceful and inclusive development. We have been strong supporters of trade agreements that promote multilateral cooperation such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).


  We are pursuing plurilateral cooperation in new frontier areas like digitalisation and sustainability fronts, e.g. Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA) with New Zealand, Chile and ROK, bilateral Digital Economy Agreements with Australia, UK, ROK; and we are working on Green Economy Agreements. We champion the interests of fellow small states with whom we share common vulnerabilities – e.g. leading the formation of Forum of Small States (FOSS) in 1992; setting up the Global Governance Group (3G) to promote greater inclusivity in the G20 process.


  Just last week I delivered our National Statement at the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4) where we welcomed the adoption of the Antigua & Barbuda Agenda for SIDS, which identified challenges facing small island developing states and called on the international community to support SIDS’ efforts to address these issues.


We also want to play our role as a constructive partner by supporting capacity building in of fellow developing countries. We do this by sharing our development experiences through the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP). At SIDS4, I also announced Singapore’s new “SIDS of Change” technical assistance package, which includes customised courses on emerging issues such as blue carbon and digitalisation. ASEAN forms the cornerstone of our efforts to uphold an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture.


It is central in a regional architecture that includes groupings such as ASEAN Plus Three, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asian Summit (EAS). ASEAN has constructive relationships with the US, China, and other partners. Amidst the evolving geopolitical landscape, maintaining ASEAN centrality and unity continues to be key, to preserve our autonomy to collaborate with our partners outside ASEAN.


  Third, we must make common cause with as many partners around the world as possible. That means we will work with all countries based on sovereign equality, mutual respect, and mutual benefit. To do this, we need to always bring value to the table. Even as we do not seek confrontation, we must always be willing to stand up for Singapore’s national interests even in the face of pressure.


Singapore must always maintain our reputation for being credible, consistent, honest brokers. Ultimately, finding ways to maintain our relevance to the world is the central motivation behind these efforts. When we keep bringing value to the table, other countries join us at the table, are willing to work with us,and are invested in our survival.


Foreign policy begins at home


This brings me to my last point that foreign policy always begins at home. It is our unity at home that gives us our strength abroad. To be able to manage our foreign policy in an increasingly complex world, we will need Singaporeans to understand our national interests.


We are a diverse society – made up of people from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. This diversity is a great strength for Singapore. But our ever-present challenge is to maintain unity of purpose, as our diversity also means that external forces can try to divide us. External issues and events will always have the potential to sow disagreement amongst us.


We can have different opinions, but fundamentally, we must look at things as Singaporeans, and speak as Singaporeans, on behalf of multiracial Singapore. All of us play an important role in fostering a well-informed and united society. If we stay united and work together, we can make Singapore a safe and secure nation in these complex and turbulent times.


  The Israel-Hamas conflict, for example, has had a big impact domestically. It is a volatile and developing situation that we watch carefully. Many Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion, also feel deeply for the victims of the conflict. Thankfully, Singaporeans have exercised tolerance and mutual respect. I am glad that our community and religious leaders have taken the lead in guiding our community response. Our national response has been consistent and principled.


  Early on, when Hamas first struck on October 7, we condemned the attacks, because nothing could justify such heinous acts of terrorism. Israel has the right to self-defence, but this must be exercised in accordance with international law including international humanitarian law. Since then, however, the scale of operations in Gaza and human suffering has been staggering and has gone too far.


Singapore has long supported the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland, as part of a negotiated two-state solution, consistent with the relevant UNSC resolutions. We continue to urge leaders on both sides to find the political will to resume negotiations, with the support of the international community, to make progress towards a two-state solution. This has become particularly urgent given the dire situation we face today.


I will end by saying that Singapore’s international standing is high, and the Singapore brand is admired and trusted worldwide. When it comes to foreign policy, Singapore is known as a credible, principled and pragmatic player. 


  Young people like you are our Ambassadors to the outside world. Conferences and events like the Singapore Model United Nations give students like you a space to think about how each of us can contribute to a better future for Singapore. All of you have a critical role to play in shaping the world we live in, making it a world where Singapore continues to thrive.


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